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Interview with Gray Cook and Brett Jones

April 24, 2007 12:17 PM

Brett: Gray ? tell me a little bit about my background and how you got to be in the fitness industry.

Gray: Well, I came out of high school as an athlete wanting to continue in some form of athletics, but probably didn't have the talent to do anything high level in collegiate sports (I did throw the discus for a little bit), but I was really interested in sports medicine and performance enhancement and never really thought that the two were separate professions, until I got into a sports medicine program in undergrad, and found out that there were athletic trainers and exercise physiologists under the same major. And, even though I loved the profession of athletic training and what it stands for, preventing injuries in athletes and rendering service and rehabilitation to athletes, it didn't really seem like that from the internship that I was doing. I wound up taping a lot of things without diagnosing a lot of things. So, I became disillusioned with that and jumped over to the exercise physiology track and didn't realize it, but I was becoming a strength coach under the guise of a wellness program because I was also getting a little disillusioned with wellness, thinking, you know I could probably get these people moving a lot better by not treating them so soft.

I realized that neither of these professions paid very well, and I wanted to understand more about the human body, but then I looked at medical school curriculums and realized that that was pretty much an endeavor in pharmacology, not human anatomy or physiology, so, by default, I wound up in physical therapy because, not that I had anything against chiropractic, but I didn't really see chiropractors doing anything mainstream medical. I didn't see them in the NFL like I do now. I saw them in the Olympics but only as an alternative to drug-free treatment; and, I figured a good physical therapist could definitely employ that which works for a chiropractor, and still be working shoulder to shoulder with orthopedists and general practitioners and strength coaches, and personal trainers in a more holistic fashion. So, I wound up at the University of Miami, and became a strength coach while I was studying physical therapy and became a physical therapist. And, on top of that, I put in some manual therapy training and became a Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist in Physical Therapy, which I think just gives you a little bit better command of assessment and manual treatment. And, when I say manual treatment, I mean joint mobilization, soft tissue situations and, even manipulation. So, here I stand, a physical therapist, a strength coach wannabe, and that's sort of the background.

I've never really known where the line is between rehabilitation, corrective exercise, fitness and performance enhancement. It all runs together and I see high performing individuals who definitely have need for rehabilitation and corrective exercise, and I see a lot of high end moves that I can use with my patients. There is no line there?it's been gone for a long time.

B: Your question being a little too modest Gray, why did you go work shoulder to shoulder with the best of the best to figure out what they were doing and go beyond a physical therapy degree to manual therapy and strength coach?

G: After getting out of physical therapy school, I realized that a lot of people in the profession, from the professors on down to the seasoned practitioners, really were operating off a lot more protocol than I thought they should be when you've got the individual right there in front of you. I mean, statistics mean nothing for the individual. When somebody gives you a prognosis of life expectancy when they tell you, 'you've got cancer', the statistics mean nothing to the individual. It just means something over a population, but yet I've seen people taking protocols designed specifically for certain populations; just "sprinkling" it on an individual without using feedback or really high-end assessment or treatment, so I became a little disillusioned with physical therapy as a profession and found out where the history of manual therapy came from. James Cyriax was the father of orthopedic medicine, not orthopedic surgery, but orthopedic medicine; standing in a room with somebody and using your hands, and eyes and ears, and every faculty to diagnose a movement based soft tissue injury, without the aid of x-ray or invasive surgery or MRI. I think that's just?to me, if there's such thing as a top gun or ninja in the field of physical medicine, that would be it. Standing there figuring it out with no fancy apparatus, and then those fancy apparatus are simply used to confirm that which you already know, to double check yourself. And, nowadays, we've got medical professionals that can't even make a diagnosis without consulting the test first. The test is to confirm, not to diagnose. The human brain is the diagnostic tool.

Anyway, I wound up studying under Paul Hughes, a manual therapist, who directly studied under James Cyriax and was such an astute student that he actually learned Norwegian so he could learn manual therapy from Freddy Kaltenborn, one of the fathers of joint mobilization theory. After serving time with Paul Hughes, I studied under Ola Grimsby, one of his prot?g?s, who is very famous in the manual therapy world and then wound up trading services in Canada, going up there and doing workshops on functional exercise simply so I could hang out an extra day or two and learn what they knew about treating the spine, because I had this gut feeling that, most of the great sports therapists that I worked with knew a lot about the knee and shoulder but didn't know anything about the neck and the back. I was like, 'how do you treat the shoulder without understanding the neck, it's sort of like the fuse box of the shoulder, and vice versa'. So, I saw the sports therapist deferring to manual therapists and back experts when an athlete had a spine problem. And yet a lot of these spine specialists didn't know the first thing about Olympic weight lifting or strength and conditioning, or even the sport that they were treating an athlete with a back injury to return to. So, I think I found a niche for myself; I'm going to be a back guy, who knows sports, because unfortunately, that person does not yet exist. I basically hit it hard and sort of, really didn't say anything for about six years; that's hard to imagine now, because I talk all the time and try to write stuff, but I know when it's time to shut up; God gave you two ears and one mouth and I tried to learn under the best of the best and figure out, 'how is it that they do what they do?' And, what I arrived at is that they all have this clinical intuition; they know what they're supposed to do without being able to go back and map it out. So, the first textbook chapter I ever wrote, I tried to create that road map, the way they go back and play movement, dysfunction and pain off each other to see where is the source of the pain, are there contributing factors; how does it relate to function and what is my first course of action? And, when you look at it that way, you find out that the best of the best of the best do the same thing all the time, every time. And, I think it's just like if you look at great fighters, they all know when to seize the opportunity that maximizes their skill. They just basically do the dance until they have their opportunity to do what it is that they do best and that's what I found with all the best clinicians. They seem to get results doing completely opposite things, which is what it seems on the surface, but below that, the choice and course of action that they take is very much the same. So, I became a student of that course of action, and tried to let that mentor me, as opposed to any one specific individual.

B: How did you make the transition from being an average general physical therapist, to working with the military, and professional and collegiate athletes, and the lead individuals in sports like "The Iron Man" etc.?

G: Basically I've done a lot of work for free. Once I was a physical therapist stuck in Decatur, Illinois, there wasn't much to do. And, in Peoria, Illinois, at the time a guy named Mike Gattone, who later became of the strength coaches for the Bulls, was running the Olympic weight lifting program. And, I became an Olympic weight lifting coach simply to better understand how the human spine could take those kinds of loads and do very well, because from everything I learned in PT school, that was a no-no. These guys threw sick amounts of weight over their head, and compared to other athletes, had healthier backs than the athletes who didn't really do any heavy thing over their head. And, I started looking at these Olympic weight lifters, helping out, treating elbow hyperextension and flat feet, and you know, other things that came up in the course of action, and I found out, these guys actually appear on the surface more like gymnasts than weight lifters. Now, the Olympic weight lifter doesn't look like your prototypical power lifter even though there are some very large individuals in the sport of Olympic weight lifting; but, I was absolutely amazed with their attention to detail, their attention to mobility, their reinforcement of quickness, and it seemed like, to me, that the application of correct alignment, great mobility and perfect quickness, allowed them to demonstrate significantly more strength than most individuals that just grab weight and ground it out without observing alignment and mobility and that quick snap that helps everything engage the way Stuart McGill talks about it engaging, like its supposed to.

So, once I got that Olympic weight lifting knowledge, I got that whole "being scared of big weight' thing that most rehab people walk around with as a monkey on their back. Once I got rid of that, I started doing things that some other people weren't doing and I took an athlete here and I took an athlete there that was not doing well and I realized that I was basically standing there with a piece of rope learning to hang myself professionally. Because, doesn't it sort of not make sense for a physical therapist who makes money on treating people to learn to do that efficient? I mean, I'm being sarcastic here, but I would take somebody who had been with a physical therapist three and four months who had not quite dialed into the problem, and in a matter of two weeks I would turn the case around, and, in the grand scheme of things, the person who did it wrong made more money than I did. I'm trying not to be bitter about that, but at the same point, I've found myself in a profession that paid for time, not results. And, so I quickly started working with individuals saying, 'Listen, let's base what we're going to do on results, not time. You're not buying time with me, you're buying an end result and I am going to coach you, and mentor you and rehab you to that point. And, when I adopted that philosophy with a lot of my athletes, I think they likened it to some of the coaches that they had had, and really liked the philosophy, and bought into it, and from those experiences where I worked for free, I worked for far less than some physical therapists, all the way up the point where people were paying me a very good fee to see me. I wrote the book, Athletic Body and Balance, about a lot of the experiences that I had had dealing with, not just an athletic population, but, just a very fit population.

B: That's a good segue, since you are known as a functional training guy. What does that mean to you, and what do I think it means to others?

G: Well, Maybe ten years ago, that was a very popular thing to be. Because, in my profession, physical therapy, we were coming off of isokenetics. Isokinetics are a forty-thousand dollar apparatus that sits in the corner with a dynamometer that measures knee flexion extension at significant speeds, but it is very objective, and not very functional; meaning, we could rehab you on that and demonstrate your knee is very sound and strong, and yet you still can't cut, turn, lunge or squat functionally. So, the profession as a whole made a slow transition into more functional maneuvers. We found ourselves not using the apparatus simply because we were doing stuff with bands and cable columns and stuff like that, that looked more at function. And, we got into a problem there, because the isokinetics wasn't bad, it just wasn't realistic. However, it was very objective and for the first time, physical therapy had an X-ray; had a very objective tool that physicians liked because it spit out graphs and charts about strength, it just wasn't usable strength. What we should have done is kept the objective approach, but got rid of the single access machine that measured strength. There are lots of other ways to draw graphs about strength and infer things about the human body when measuring strength. We got onto this functional tangent and all of a sudden people took it one step too far and said, 'well you know what, if kicking a soccer ball looks like this and I strap six bands on you; two on your ankle and one on your knee, a couple on your pelvis, blah, blah, blah, a couple around your ears and you kick into resistance, that must be functional as well because you're doing the kicking motion under resistance'. And, I think, that the people who are against functional training have seen ludicrous applications of resisting a movement that was never meant to be resisted. You wouldn't resist a punch because a punch is supposed to snap and it's supposed to go as fast as it can possibly go; summoning your energy from the floor through your core, bam to your fist, boom, you've got it. And, anything that makes that better, is functional. But, just tying bands on the body to slow that movement down to the point where no motor learning carryover even occurs?because we've shown if you don't practice and move at the speed of competition, at the speed of use, there is really no carryover and the assumption is, if we do the same movement, and resist it, then you'll become stronger in that movement and thus have carryover. And, when you can't demonstrate significant carryover by what you're doing, you are not doing something functional. And, if you can demonstrate significant carryover from whatever move you're doing, into that which you want to do better, that by definition is functional. So, the thing I always say in my lectures, 'it's not what an exercise looks like that makes it functional, it's what it produces'. And, so I think a lot of people who have stuck tried and true to effective strength training maneuvers, kettle bell, Olympic weight lifting, stuff like that, as purists, have always seen that these exercises have unbelievable functional carryover, even though you never touch a band, or cross the mid-line, you know, blah, blah, blah. And, so the functional people are trying to be functional, but they can't forget number one, to be objective, and number two, they've got to measure that carryover because, just because it looks functional, doesn't mean it is. So, I'm functional in that I want to produce things that have significant and powerful carryover into that which you need and want to do better. That's the definition of function to me and if somebody is regurgitating six different ways to tie a band around your waist, that's not functional to me because I don't know what they're going for.

B: Please expand on what's happened in sports specificity as a transition off of functional training.

G: Well sports specificity came into vogue when we realized that different sports used different energy systems and use different body parts at significantly different levels. So, we were also looking at body building at the time, because isolation must be good because it makes things big and puffy, and so we said, you know what, we can isolate those attributes of a specific sport and you know, pitchers started doing extra stuff for their rotator cuff, and batters started doing extra things for their grip and maybe their hip turn. And, we saw this vast application of sport specific moves and there's nothing wrong with that; because getting yourself specifically ready for an activity, is absolutely necessary at an elite level. However, at a fundamental level, what we saw is, the sports specific mentality kept falling further and further down from the elite individual, all the way to the middle school, and now, we've got baseball players that are doing throwing and swinging drills, with weighted bats and long tosses with a baseball, and can't even do a push-up. Now, I don't think the forefathers of sports specificity meant for us to put specific speed-dependent velocity highly dialed in complex movement patterns on top of "crap", but that's what I think we're putting sports specificity on. And, now I've worked a lot in major league baseball and I'll probably offend some people for saying this, but you won't find many strength coaches in major league baseball that are going to have you press a respectable weight overhead because everybody's scared that's going to injure the shoulder, and if done correctly, that's the only thing that's going to protect it. So, we've gotten so dialed in to the sports specific model now, that we have forgotten that the fundamentals of human movement are a precursor to athletics and athleticism. And, becoming a good athlete has nothing to do with being expert at one particular sport. Because, you'll find that the better someone gets at one sport, they're highly specialized in a specific sport or position, but they're almost no longer a good athlete. And, what I mean by an athlete, is someone basically who can basically do what needs to be done; they can hike, they can climb, they can run, they can turn, they can twist, they can swing, they can punch, they can kick quite well, and manage their own body within their base of support; they can manage their body weight with expert precision. That's the definition of an athlete, and then you become a sportsman once you learn the rules and regulations and specifics of that which you want to play. And, I know I'm probably taking liberty with certain definitions, but you know, athleticism to me has to be fundamental and sports specificity goes on top of that.

B: You created a functional movement screen, what is that?

G: Well, the Functional Movement Screen came out of a little bit of frustration, in my profession, and I created it as a physical therapist, looking at a training and conditioning profession that were making some fundamental mistakes that I, myself, had been making all along. And, I was putting performance before movement, or to be more correct, I was putting quantitative measures before qualitative measures. When we look back at Olympic weight lifting, or marshal arts or gymnastics, the best of the best focus and dial in on technique, and they don't worry about performance, they don't worry about quantifying anything until the move is dialed in. But, when you get into recreational running, and body building, and everything else that Americans do, and spend money on, there is a number associated with it. Whether it's your golf score, or whether it's how quick you are doing a two mile run; anything else you do, your soccer team's score for the season, your scoring percentage, your assist?everybody's looking at numbers but they are not looking at the fundamentals and if you study the best of the best coaches, guys like John Wooden, they always focused on the fundamentals and they always focused on quality, and they let the numbers take care of themselves. We have become a number driven thing. I am completely blown away in the gym everyday when I watch people stop at the fourth or fifth or tenth rep; not because it's the last one they could do clean, without mistakes or assistance, it's what they decided in their head they were going to do. And, so, once again, they are becoming a slave to numbers. They don't just pick up a weight and lift that weight, not so much to failure but to the last clean rep that you could do. Then, they've already got pre-packaged in their head the little envelope of movements that they're going to do, and it's so number-driven, it's mind numbing. And, what I found when I created the Functional Movement Screen, is people were in the squat rack trying to squat more, without worrying if they were squatting better or not. And, I've always known just getting your balance and your symmetry and your hip mobility and your core stability, and breath, and everything else right, the squat gets better right away. Those are indicators, those are responses to better movement that give you feedback right away; 'hey, if I were to do these four things, my squat goes up right away and it beats the hell out of just trying harder and tearing my body up'. So, what we were seeing is, number one, significant amounts of unexplainable injuries. These are non-contact injuries in sports that are occurring because people are not well trained and their not conditioned for the sport. And, we're seeing these numbers in excess of where they were before sports specificity training ever came around. And, I said, well what's missing? We were specifically addressing the needs, but we'd lost the fundamentals. So, we've got football players that can't deep squat, without any weight on them at all. As a matter of fact, they're like, 'well with a little weight on me I could go deeper'. That's not good, because what happens there is the extra weight is pushing you through your ligamentous tension, and actually spreading the pelvis a little bit. You're not getting better hip mobility; you're collapsing. Your spine is rounding and your hips are basically not well aligned. So people who say, 'yeah, well, I always go a little bit deeper with weight', that's not a good thing. You should be able to go all the way down into a deep squat. Whether you choose to lift that way has a lot to do with your specific training goals. But, getting into the squat rack, and trying to become a better squatter without having a good, deep squat, is almost ludicrous. The deep squat is a primitive, or primal fundamental movement pattern that we've had, basically since we learn to walk, and even slightly before we learn to walk. It's one of the fundamental building blocks. After looking at the squat and some of the mistakes people made there, I went into the lunge, single-leg stance, some indications from shoulder mobility and implications of a poor, as opposed to a good push-up, and created seven little movements that we go through, that sort of give me a overall bird's eye view of the general perspective of, 'how is this person moving?' And, if I throw exercise at them, how much will they compensate? How much energy will they be wasting in a nebulous direction as opposed to their focus, simply because their alignment and their muscle balance and their proprioception is out. The big misconception is when I introduced the seven tests of the Functional Movement Screen with a grading system that helps you dial in who should go ahead and move into training, who should be supervised and watched, and do some corrective exercise, and who should not even be training, they need to get checked out. I tried to create those three categories. People thought that the seven tests of the Functional Movement Screen were simply mechanical tests to say, 'well that guy's lat is tight, and her calves are really, really weak, and this person has no core control'. They are not mechanical tests at all. As a matter of fact, each test in isolation means very little. To me, all seven tests together give me a general perspective of an individual who has very poor body awareness and proprioception, an individual who is obligated to compensate and substitute movement no matter how good their trainer or coach is. They have no choice, they have to round their back, their hip will not flex anymore and their hip will not flex anymore because they don't have pelvic control, not because their hip has a bony block in it, even though that's what it feels like when you don't control your pelvis. So, I created the system as the first line of defense to not bring a bad movement pattern into your good exercise practices. Because, what I found out is, other strength coaches and physical therapists like myself have some great exercises that do some great things and people would apply these exercises and say, 'hey, I'm not getting your results, you're lying'. No, I wasn't lying, but I didn't put those exercises blindly on everybody, I put them on the person whose body said they were indicated and needed that correction at that specific time. So, as I always say in lectures, 'if you're not hung over, you don't really feel the effect of the ibuprofen. If you're not having an issue, you're probably not going to appreciate how dialed in a corrective exercise is for what you need. So, obviously, how could you train somebody without just looking at how they manage their own body weight and space before you throw resistance on them? So, that's what the Movement Screen simply is. It's a ten to twelve minute investment of your time that ultimately makes you look like you have a crystal ball because you can talk to them about problems they haven't even mentioned to you yet. And, that's in essence what great coaches do; they have an eye for movement before they worry about anatomy or exercise or sports specificity. They dial in and look at movement. Marshal artists do this all the time. They know which leg you stand solid on and which one you don't stand well on and they will force you to kick with the opposite leg simply to force you to gain greater stability on that which you are standing on. And, they do it automatically, and they do it time and time again. So, that's really the purpose and scope of the Movement Screen.

B: So it all boils down to movement patterns?

G: Absolutely. Movement in the brain is recognized as patterns and variations of patterns. Obviously, there are similarities between the overhead throwing movement and a tennis serve. Or, a baseball swing and a golf swing, although the movements are different, they rely on some of the same kinetic linking, the way one body movement creates a wave action and continues on to the other part of the body movement. So, if you were trying to build a super computer that could move like a human, it would be more efficient for hard drive space to create a few fundamental patterns and have the entire spectrum of human movement be small deviations from the fundamental, than to create a separate motor program for fast ball, curve ball, or a slider. They work off the same program with slight changes in variation so you have this central theme, and everything is just plus this on top. And, that's why the human mind and the human brain is such an efficient piece of moving hardware and software, because number one, it has amazing storage capacity for unbelievable movements. Look at a marshal artist with all the katas that they can memorize and this unbelievably beautiful linked sequence. Now when they turn it into a fight, it's a completely different thing; they become very efficient, dialed in, protective in their movements, and they have both playing off of each other, but, yet different in some way. So, patterns are what it's all about. The Movement Screen is simply designed to capture the weakest or most limited pattern and an array of fundamental patterns so you will know where the eye of the hurricane is and the source of the problem is. Because if you are working on any aspect of human movement other than the weakest link, you're just burning calories but you are also creating micro-trauma, because they are still allowed to compensate, they're working around that movement pattern problem.

B: How long have you been involved in the fitness industry?

G: I was a personal trainer while I was an undergrad, and God bless me, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was getting tips and counting reps, and pulling pins. But, I would probably say I've been making a valid contribution, or at least trying, since about 1990, the year I became a strength coach and physical therapist and started on the side training some people, and then, as a full-time physical therapist.

B: What led you to Kettlebells?

G: From the moment I got the first Dragon Door catalog/publication, I saw something there that was very primitive and primal and sort of spoke to an intuition I've always had about training that we're making it way too complicated, we offer way too much variety and we should make people harder and more focused and make them become expert at a few moves, as opposed to introduced to multiple moves. I could care less about an athlete or patient's boredom if I have them doing the right thing. I could care less about it; I am not an entertainer (except when I lecture or write?there has to be some level of entertainment there); but when I'm actually giving my time to help somebody, they deserve the quickest path to the best result and giving you a buffet of exercise is not the best approach. Even though it may entertain you, you will eventually find somebody else who feels much more confident with a few moves, than simply competent with multiple moves. So, when I saw the Kettlebell, and read through The Naked Warrior and understood where Pavel was coming from with heart style, and then looked at the first Kettlebell video he was in and saw the Turkish get-up. I'm like, oh my gosh. That, to me, just, number one, speaks to symmetry because you do it as a left and right move and, two, creates by the high center of gravity of the Kettlebell all the core reactions that everybody else tries to get by laying the body down, and pressing on things and pushing on things. It's just so fundamental, finding that body awareness vertical, or what I call proprioceptive vertical with the shoulder and spine simply so that the Kettlebell doesn't fall. It basically forces you not to make a mistake. And, without patting you on the back too much, when I saw your Kettlebell video, and heard some of the things you said, because you come from the athletic training background, they just really hit home and I'm like, we can use the Kettlebell for a lot more than just hard style stuff. We can use the Kettlebell to really straighten people of significant and varied backgrounds the same way. So, to me, it was basically a way to cut a lot of the fluff out of training and conditioning that I've always wanted to cut out, and dial into that pure path whether it's popular or not. I've never really worried too much about that.

Brett: Gray, I want to thank you for taking time to do this interview and sharing this great information.

Please be sure to check out Gray Cook's and Brett Jones's Secrets of the Shoulder DVD set.

Gray Cook MSPT, OCS, CSCS is one of the most sought after lectures in the country, developer of the Functional Movement Screen and consultant to many professional teams and military groups. You can learn more about Gray and the Functional Movement Screen at

Brett Jones, Sr. RKC, CSCS is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. Brett has partned with Gray on the "Secrets of" video and audio series and lectures for You can learn more about Brett through his website